What Is Chronic Wasting Disease?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 04, 2021
3 min read

Chronic Wasting Disease or CWD is a disease that affects certain wild animals, most of which people like to hunt. Unfortunately, due to a disengaged hunter population, lack of awareness, and lack of interest, the spread of CWD is out of control and largely unknown. Read on to discover more about CWD.

CWD is a prion or protein disease. It affects deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer, moose, and other members of the cervid family. It is similar to mad cow disease in cows, scrapie in sheep and goats, or Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease in people. Rather than a virus or bacteria, it is caused by irregular proteins in the brain.

CWD has been found in animals in the United States, Norway, and South Korea. It can take over a year before the animal infected develops symptoms. Symptoms include:

  • Severe weight loss
  • Stumbling
  • Listlessness
  • Drooling
  • High thirst or urination
  • Drooping ears
  • Lack of fear

It isn’t possible to diagnose an animal simply from these symptoms as CWD always occurs with other diseases and malnutrition. It is always fatal.

It is thought that CWD spreads in animals through body fluids, tissue, and contaminated food or water. Once it invades a particular environment, it can spread very quickly. It also remains in that same environment for a long time, even after an infected animal has died.

There have been studies that show that CWD can infect squirrel monkeys and lab rats that carry genes similar to humans. In one particular study, a species of monkey similar to humans were fed CWD-infected meat. Those monkeys were then infected with CWD.

Due to these studies, many people believe that CWD could potentially be transmitted to humans through the consumption of CWD-infected meat. However, further studies must be done to understand this and determine how quickly CWD can spread. Either way, humans should avoid eating CWD-infected meat at all costs to avoid any risk.

If you are hunting in an area you know has CWD, the CDC recommends that you test the animals before you eat the meat. There are monitoring tools that can detect CWD utilized by state wildlife officials. However, testing varies from state to state, and different states may test differently.

Even if your caught meat tests negative for CWD, this does not mean that it is truly CWD-free. However, it does reduce the chances of it carrying the disease.

If you are hunting in a CWD-infected area make sure to:

  • Not shoot, touch, or eat meat from an animal that looks sick, acts strangely, or is found dead
  • Wear latex gloves when handling meat
  • Try not to touch the organs more than necessary
  • Not use household knives or other utensils when field dressing
  • Learn the ordinances in your particular state for animal testing
  • Get your meat tested before you eat it
  • If you have your meat processed by a company, make sure to tell the butcher to separate your meat so that your meats are not mixed with multiple animals
  • Do not eat meat that tests positive for CWD

Overall, CWD in commonly hunted deers and elk is quite low. However, when it does show in an ecosystem it tends to infect many animals quickly and for a long time. While it is most likely that CWD does not affect humans, there is still research that needs to be done to determine whether or not we can be infected by it.

However, due to the current knowledge gap of CWD’s effect on humans, you should exercise extreme caution around meats, animals, or dead animals you think might be infected by it. While the CWD policies, tests, and processes vary by state, it is important to know what to do in your area and to get hunted meat tested.

Not only does getting your meat tested help you to avoid a potentially serious disease but it can also help to stop the spread of CWD in your area.